VENICE — I took my husband to Venice for his birthday on Oct. 7 for the last time. He stayed, and now Tom Carney is a resident of La Serinissima, or "the Most Serene," as the one-time independent republic was once known.
That Monday afternoon, Tom's ashes were dispersed in the Laguna di Venezia outside the city we both loved.
Venice was our favorite place in the world, a spot where we tried to visit whenever we were within 1,000 miles, because we could never get enough of it.
We had been there about 10 times and loved soaking up the atmosphere in off-the-tourist-track neighborhoods. Venice is unlike any other city — it's not only beautiful, with imposing centuries-old palazzos that line the Grand Canal, but also peaceful, because there are no automobiles. Boats and feet are the main modes of getting around.
Years before, Tom and I had talked casually off and on about his desire to have his ashes scattered in the waters of our beloved Venice. The discussion became more relevant when he was hospitalized a month before his death Feb. 3. He suggested an alternative in Colorado, "If you can't make it to Venice."
After he died, I thought, "Why can't I?" So I started making plans. In truth, I probably did it as much for me as for him. I wanted to visit Venice with Tom one last time.
But it wasn't easy. A burial — at sea or on land — in a foreign country comes with an obstacle course of rules and regulations.
It would have been easier, perhaps, had Tom specified a scattering at sea in Venice in his will. It took me almost seven frustrating months — although final approval came, Italian-style, just days before I departed. And it was not cheap: Not including travel necessities (airfare, hotel, local transportation, food, drinks and glass-bead jewelry — oh, the jewelry!), it cost about $3,400 for paperwork, fees and funeral boats.
I now feel that I know more about "Death in Venice" than the novel's author, Thomas Mann.
And the whole time I was jumping through hoops planning the trip, I could hear Tom's voice: "This is idiotic nonsense, Mim. Forget it. Don't go to all that trouble."
But I'm not a newspaper reporter for nothing. Tenacity is our trademark — and I'm glad I persevered this time, too.
People probably have been throwing urns with ashes into Venetian waters for centuries. However, I knew that Tom, a lawyer, would want me to do it legally.
I Googled "Venice and cremation," and up popped stories from two London newspapers. They said that under a 2010 law, for the first time cremains were allowed to be scattered from certain spots in Venice's waters.
In early March I decided to start with the vice consulate of Italy in Denver, but the office wasn't functioning. Instead, I had to go through the Consulate General of Italy in Chicago, which handles Colorado and informed me that the necessary forms were on the website (www.conschicago.esteri.it/Consolato_Chicago). But those forms weren't pertinent, only dealing with bodies and caskets and shipping, not cremains being carried.
I called Chicago again, and this time got voicemail. No one called me back.
In searching the Internet, another organization surfaced: the International Scattering Society, whose website said the group "was founded to educate and to assist families with scattering cremated remains worldwide," adding that the society could also help with local contacts and permits.
Great! This was going to be easy, I thought, especially since the website showed Venice on a map of locations. I called the phone number in Lee's Summit, Mo.
But the woman who answered said the society did not have contacts in Venice and didn't know how to go about arranging a burial at sea. So much for that.
"This is idiotic nonsense," I heard Tom saying again.
I was getting worried, so I asked a Denver friend who was born in Italy and has cousins in Sicily to ask her relatives to make some phone calls. That, I did know, was idiotic nonsense.
I asked another friend in San Francisco who helps feral and stray cats in Italy (Tom and I had gone on a "Cats and Culture" tour she sponsored in Venice in 2006) if she could contact one of her Venetian friends for help. Her contact eventually sent me pertinent computer links through the Comune di Venezia (City of Venice) website — with information that was, of course, all in Italian.
Meanwhile, I had found another website. This one was for the Italian Institute in Denver (italianinstitute.com), which offers Italian-language classes, translates documents and helps plan travel in Italy. In April, I met with founder Maria Chiacchio , who said she could help. I gave her a down payment of $250 and left her to deal with her fellow countrymen.
Over the next several months, Chiacchio was in frequent contact with the Italian Consulate in Chicago and the City of Venice's Mortuary Police office, which is in charge of issuing a required mortuary passport. But even the consulate had difficulty getting responses from Venice: The process of dispersing ashes in the waters of Venice is new for the city and presents complications, especially if you're not an Italian citizen.
I was beginning to wonder if the 10 friends and family members who planned to be in Venice for Tom (and me) on his birthday in October would be making a trip for naught.
Administrative assistant Cristiana Ninci with the Chicago consulate suggested that I hire a funeral home in Venice to help expedite the process. Weeks later, when Chiacchio contacted one, things started to happen. The funeral home was able to do some necessary legwork in Venice.
It was mid-September.
At one point, Chiacchio's e-mails weren't even being answered by the funeral home. It turned out the owner forgot to pay the bill for his Web domain, and his e-mail was cut off. So Chiacchio got the mayor involved in the correspondence, asking why no one from the Mortuary Police was responding ("I added the mayor's address to see if they would wake up!").
The mayor never responded personally, but the next day, Sept. 24, Chiacchio heard from the city. E-mails started flying fast and furiously during the next couple of days. I chuckled at all the exclamation points and the word URGENTE! in the subject lines.
Chiacchio tried to keep me calm through all the drama, assuring me "it's just the way Italy works," and adding that, politically and economically, things are very difficult in Italy right now.
Finally, on Sept. 27, a week before I was to leave for Venice, Chiacchio sent the e-mail I had been waiting for. "They are sending the mortuary passport!" It arrived Sept. 30.
A Transportation Security Agent pulled me aside Oct. 4 at Denver International Airport to ask if there were ashes in my carry-on bag; he wanted to do a swab test. He said cremains show up in the X-ray machine as "bad stuff" — they apparently have the same consistency as explosives. I was tempted to tell him that, well, Tom did sometimes have an explosive personality, but I knew better. Never make jokes with airport security officials.
No one asked for the mortuary passport when my friend Barbara Ellis and I arrived the next morning at Marco Polo Airport in Venice, although the Chicago Consulate had said immigration would. I e-mailed Chiacchio in Denver to commiserate. "Of course, right?" she responded.
And despite all the documents that Chiacchio had sent to Chicago with notary seals, apostilles (seals authenticating documents to be used in a foreign country) and other official verifications, the funeral home informed me that I would need to go to the Mortuary Police office in Venice Monday morning — Tom's birthday and the day of the planned ceremony — to sign more papers.
A man from the funeral home arrived at my hotel at 8:30 a.m. and we walked in pounding rain to the city office. Three women pored over the file with worried looks, speaking fast Italian. Finally, they asked for the mortuary passport. Aha! All was not in vain. Then I had to sign three copies of a form confirming that the ashes had been dispersed in the Venetian Lagoon, although that wouldn't occur for another six hours or so.
By 2 p.m., when the two funeral boats arrived, the rain had stopped and the clouds cleared, allowing blue sky to peek through. We motored out into the lagoon near the island of St. Michele, the home of Venice's cemetery (with celebrity residents Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky). Church bells chimed. We raised plastic champagne glasses filled with Italian sparkling wine in a toast to Tom while his daughter, Diane, recited Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." It begins:
"Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea."
I took a deep breath, leaned over the side of the funeral boat and gently dropped the papier- mâché box into the lagoon. Tears flowed along with the bubbly as the biodegradable "Aqua Journey earthurn" with Tom's ashes gracefully skimmed the water for a couple of minutes, then sank. One of the women in our group poured some bubbly into the water "for Tom."
Afterward, we had a mini-Irish wake at the venerated Harry's Bar — one of Ernest Hemingway's and Tom Carney's favorite haunts — then dinner later at my hotel restaurant, where there were more toasts and tears.
It was the perfect ending to an emotion-filled day.
Farewell at the piazza
On our last night in Venice, there was one more thing I had to do before saying ciao. Barbara and I walked to the unequaled Piazza San Marco, which earlier in the day had been flooded with aqua alta (high water), but now was dry. There is not a more beautiful place to people-watch and listen to musica from the small rival orchestras playing outside three rival historic cafés. You can stand all night and enjoy the sounds for free, but if you sit you pay a supplement of 6 euros each, about $8.35. Tom and I didn't mind paying for music, and were always amused by the white-coated waiters who never batted an eyelash over the menu — they are expert at acting like there's nothing outrageous at all about the prices.
We settled at a table in front of Caffe Quadri, which dates to 1638. We ordered a cappuccino and a glass of red wine, along with two ice cream sundaes, one strawberry and the other chocolate. The bill, including musica, came to 63.50 euros — almost $90.
That, indeed, is idiotic nonsense. But it's Venice, the mesmerizing, magical island city built on mudflats with an improbable existence. It is difficult to depart. You do so only because you leave your heart and know you will return — idiotic nonsense or not.
Arrivederci, mio amato marito. Goodbye, my beloved husband. Ci vediamo.
Mim Swartz, who lives in Golden, is the former travel editor of The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.
A first-class first for Tom's final ride
When Mim Swartz told me we would be carrying the ashes of her late husband, Tom Carney, on a flight to Venice, my first thought was: What if we forgot him in the overhead bin? What if someone opened the bin and his ashes fell out and broke open and ... ?
And then, realistically: Why the heck should Tom travel in economy class for his last flight ever?
So as we boarded the Denver-to-Philadelphia flight on Oct. 4, I approached US Airways flight attendant Scott Johnson.
"I have a strange request," I began.
"I love strange requests," he responded.
"Can my friend's husband's ashes travel in first class to Philadelphia"?
It was a first for him in 30 years of flying.
"Well, you know what W.C. Fields said about death," Johnson said. "All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
When we landed, Mim and I went forward to retrieve the paper urn in a purple velveteen bag containing Tom's ashes. Johnson had it strapped into a first-class seat, tucked in with a pillow and blanket. Funny guy.
On the Philadelphia-to-Venice leg, cabin service director Vicki Balisteri's response to my query was: "How can I say no to a request like that?"
US Airways flight attendant Toni Romero said Mim's story touched everyone she told, and even brought another attendant to our seat to meet Tom's loving wife.
Mission accomplished: Tom was a celebrity on his final trans-Atlantic flight, just as he should have been.
And despite the jet lag, we didn't even forget to retrieve him from his first-class digs. Or drop him, not even once.
Barbara Ellis, The Denver Post
ITALIAN INSTITUTE SERVICES
It took almost six months for Maria Chiacchio of the Italian Institute in Denver to get approval to disperse Tom Carney's ashes in the Venetian waters. Her fee of $2,595 included: